2012 Volvo S60: Performance Anxiety
The Volvo S60 has proven itself capable at family road trips and kid hauling, but after a string of practical hauls it was finally time to hit the road for a drive that didn't involve an interstate slog or Babies-"R"-Us.
When I tested it last year, the 325-horsepower Volvo S60 T6 R-Design impressed with its engaging dynamics and impressive grip, which made me wonder if the more modestly endowed T5 model might be a dull daily driver due to its 75 fewer horsepower and front wheel-drive setup.
To my surprise, the punier T5's 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo proved surprisingly zippy around town, thanks in part to a whopping 329-pound weight advantage over its all-wheel drive counterpart. The six-speed automatic transmission also aids the engine with swift, intuitive cog swaps; shoving the gear selector into "Sport" mode enables a more aggressive throttle response and higher rpm shifts. But when it comes to spirited driving in city traffic, the T5 isn't without its faults: though it feels nimble and capable, heavy acceleration produces torque steer, one of the unfortunate side effects of front wheel-drive. Also, the gearbox doesn't respond quite so quickly to manual inputs, and there's no option for steering-mounted paddle shifters.
But for a more challenging test, I jettisoned the baby seat and headed to the hills-specifically, the famously twisty Angeles Crest Highway, a 66-mile stretch of meandering tarmac that links the La Canada Flintridge suburb with the ski town of Wrightwood, 5,935 feet above sea level. The road attracts its share of hikers, sightseers, and adventure-seeking motorcyclists, and I was curious to see how the Volvo performs on this demanding route.
On larger-scale canyon roads, the T5's tendency for torque steer feels less pronounced, allowing more of the chassis' balanced, well-sorted aspects to shine. Though the stock 17-inch wheels are wrapped with a pothole soaking tire setup, the optional dynamic package ($900) would have equipped the car with lower profile 18-inch wheels and crisper handling. The taller sidewalls on my tester certainly revealed themselves during higher g-force turns, but the S60 didn't feel sloppy or out of control, just a tad less sharp than it could have. However, stability and traction control intervenes rather early when the going gets naughty, and switching DSTC "Off" doesn't really switch it off. Rather, a "Sport Mode" message illuminates on the instrument panel, and incrementally more sliding is allowed before the computer steps in. Thanks to the electronic aid, the S60's front-heavy layout never totally makes itself obvious, though the non-defeatable system doesn't allow you to fully control your fate, either.
But when you're hauling along at high speeds with precipitous drops on either side of your two-lane trajectory, a little electronic assistance isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, this is a public road, not a racetrack. The S60's five-cylinder turbo is liveliest as it pushes through the middle of its torque curve, with power tapering off as it nears the 6,600 rpm redline. The mill doesn't produce much of an exhaust note (thanks, in part, to its turbocharged setup.) While that auditory omission certainly counts against its sporting claims, the quiet cabin did leave me refreshed after my two hour, 120-mile tango in the canyons. Similarly, brake feel is on the soft side, perhaps in an effort to reduce brake dust. But ironically, the Volvo's alloy wheels darkened noticeably during my drive, due to the stability control system's frequent activation, which helps turn the vehicle by applying the brakes on the inside of the turn.
After thoroughly flogging the S60 on the mostly uphill outbound route, the indicated fuel economy was 12.8 mpg-not surprising, given my throttle-burying, redline-riding driving style-and it improved to 15.8 mpg on the way back. Despite those dismal numbers, consumption returned to more typical figures after a quarter tank's worth of city driving.
All in all, is the T5 sporty enough for enthusiasts? Mostly due to its front-wheel drive layout, this Volvo isn't quite as satisfying as its all wheel-drive stablemates the T6 AWD and T6 R-Design, which can be more fairly cross-shopped against the standard-setting BMW 3-series when it comes to driver satisfaction. But for a budget-minded sedan with mild performance intentions, the Volvo S60 T5 proves entertaining along the twisting Angeles Crest Highway, even if it might not completely satisfy those who drive solely for the sport of it.